Tis’ the season to go skiing and snowboarding. Ski resorts all over the state are opening this month. It is a well-known fact that spending time outdoors is healthy for not only your body, but your eyes too. So get ready, get set, and go! But before you swish down the mountain, ask yourself if you have taken the necessary steps in protecting your eyes from developing snow blindness – a specific form of something called Photokeratitis or Ultraviolet Keratitis.
Snow blindness can be thought of as a really bad sunburn of your eyes (cornea and conjunctiva). It is caused by exposure of your unprotected eyes to natural sunlight that is reflected off of the snow or ice. With just the right mix of high altitude and freshly packed snow, your eyes may be subjected to as much as 80% of UV radiation damage in a very short period of time.
After exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the white part of your eyes (conjunctiva) may look extremely red and the clear covering of your eyes (cornea) may take on a glassy appearance.
Overall, your eyes will not be feeling too great. With every blink, you may experience unrelenting pain, intense tearing, sandy and gritty feeling, eyelid twitching, discomfort with bright lights and a natural tendency to want to blink more rapidly or shut your eyes tight. Your vision may be reduced to varying degrees.
The best way to prevent snow blindness is to wear UV-blocking sunglasses or goggles that only allow a certain amount of visible light through. Also, remember to don that protective eyewear whether it is a sunny or a gloomy, overcast day – UV rays can reach your eyes under any condition.
In the event that you forget to bring your sunglasses or you lose them on the way down the slopes and sustain subsequent sun damage to your eyes, your friendly optometrist can promptly treat your symptoms and provide comfort and relief.
While snow blindness is a one form of Photokeratitis, there are also other forms of which you should be aware, including artificial lights from suntanning beds, electric sparks, halogen desk lamps, flood lights, and arc welding (welder’s flash, arc eye, flash burn) just to name a few. The prevention is the same. Wear your UV-blocking sunglasses or goggles to not only look stylin’, but to preserve the health of your eyes and sight.
See you on the slopes!
~Judy Tong, OD, FAAO, FAAO
California Optometric Association